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Counterpuncher: The Gift

June 11, 2014 02:09 PM

The Gift

A mysterious tennis racket and the decades-old story behind it.


What do you want for your birthday? I was on the brink of turning 14 and my father wanted to know. 

A tennis racket, I said.  I’d really like a Jack Kramer tennis racket.

If you’ve never heard of a Jack Kramer, it was the racket of choice during the 1950s and ’60s. 

Much like today’s Babolat, many of the best players then used a Kramer, at least it seemed so to me.

KramerBabolatOver the years there were many variations of the Kramer. The most popular was a cream-colored wood racket that bore the name of a player who, for half a century, was one of the most celebrated figures in American tennis.

On the throat of the racket, below Kramer’s signature, was a familiar gold crown. 

Manufactured by Wilson Sporting Goods, the Jack Kramer Autograph was more expensive than other rackets of its time, yet it still sold in the millions.

Some of my friends owned Kramers and I badly wanted to join them.  

When the big day arrived, my father smiled, wished me “Happy Birthday” and then handed me a Rowland Dufton Autograph racket. Beneath the signature, instead of a little gold crown, were the blue letters “ACC.”

“Rowland Dufton?” I said, unable to hide my disappointment. “Who the heck is Rowland Dufton? And what does this ‘ACC’ mean?”

My father didn’t know. To him, a tennis racket was a tennis racket. Who cared what name appeared on it? 

I cared. I read World Tennis each month and the name Rowland Dufton meant nothing to me.

My friends didn’t know either. They chuckled and called my racket “Rollie.”   

I used Rollie on into high school. It held up fine, though at times, particularly after a loss, I sensed I might have done better with a Kramer.

Following my first year in college, I took a summer job as a cub reporter.

With the money I earned, I finally obtained a Kramer. 

A keepsake in the attic

For some reason I hung on to the Rowland Dufton Autograph long after a knucklehead stringer caused the frame of my Kramer to crack. After that I bought different rackets—wood, then aluminum, metal and  the newest composites.

Meanwhile, I dragged old Rollie with me every time I moved to a new place to live. When I relocated to New Mexico I stuck Rollie in an unventilated attic, along with a velvet suit, a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, stacks of Mad Magazines and other flotsam of my youth.

Dufton_racket_001At some point in the 1980s I made an attempt to discover who Rowland Dufton was. Because Google wouldn’t arrive for another decade and more, my search ended swiftly.   

This spring, ordered to downsize, I came across 'Rollie' (pictured, right). Not surprisingly, the racket was severely warped.

What’s more, it weighed a lot more than I remembered. The grip was slippery as an eel; the strings taut as piano wire. I stared again at the racket’s signature. 

Who the heck was Rowland Dufton?

Once and for all, I decided to find out.

My computer initially revealed Rowland Dufton to be a squash player connected to the New York Athletic Club during the 1920s and 1930s. How did a squash player become a tennis player? I had no idea, nor did anyone at the New York Athletic Club know when I called there.

I kept looking. Eventually, I found Rowland Dufton’s obituary. It ran fewer than 100 words. Dufton was born in Leeds, England, in 1896 and died in Hamilton, Mass., in 1984, at the age of 88.  He had been a tennis instructor as well as a squash standout. His wife’s name was Eleanor and she was deceased.  They had had no children.

Undaunted, I kept looking. I employed several different search engines to help. In time I learned that Rowland Dufton had two younger brothers, Selwyn and Sidney. They too had been tennis instructors and squash professionals.

Eventually I located in Port Orange, Fla., a Joan Dufton who, a search site noted, was a “possible relative” of Rowland Dufton. This Rowland Dufton turned out to be Joan Dufton’s late husband. He had been the son of Selwyn Dufton, the brother of the man I was hunting.  A U.S. Census report showed Selwyn died in 1979 and Sidney in 1987.

Joan Dufton said she had never met any of the three brothers or talked to them. The brothers emigrated to the U.S. from England, and after that all three evidently parted company. 

“I think there was a rift of some kind going on,” Joan Dufton said.

The scent of sibling rivalries

Joan suggested I contact her brother-in-law, Richard Dufton, who lived near Bangor, Maine. Dick Dufton was 81 years old and the son the son of Selwyn Dufton.  Dick told me on the phone that he had met his Uncle Rowland, his father’s brother, just once, for only a few moments.  

That meeting had taken place in 1979 when Dick traveled to Brookline, Mass., to attend his father’s funeral. Afterward, Dick said, he decided to stop in Hamilton, Mass., where Rowland Dufton was then living.

Rowland Dufton, Dick said, had not gone to his brother’s funeral, even though the two men resided in the same state. In fact, they had lived less than an hour away. Oddly, Sidney Dufton had been mentioned in Rowland’s obituary, but Selwyn had not.  Just as odd, Sidney, who was then living in suburban New York, perhaps five hours away, did not go to the funeral either.     

 “That was just the way it was,” Dick said. “My dad almost never spoke of his brothers or of their parents. Not once. I’m afraid I don’t know the reason.”

Dick said that when he told his mother, Selwyn’s wife, that he was going to stop and see his Uncle Rowland, she warned, “Don’t stay long. Don’t stay for lunch.”

Once again I was left astonished. Why had she said that? I asked.

“I guess she knew his background,” Dick said. Apparently, the brothers’ father,  Joseph Dufton, had been “hard” on all three boys. They in turn apparently for some reason cut off communication with each other.   

Because I had never seen a photograph of Rowland Dufton I asked Dick what he looked like. “He was a slight man, like my dad,” Dick recalled.  “Slim and trim, like my dad.” 

Dick told me that his uncle Rowland, in that one brief chat, had asked what sport he had played.  “Golf,” Dick offered.  The older man smiled and said, “You can play that until the day you die.” End of conversation.     

No one seemed to know the cause of the falling out between the three men. Differences occur in some families, I knew, conflicts that are never fully explained or discussed. That all three brothers were involved in tennis and squash may have given root to sibling rivalries. For years the three men competed with each other in tournaments. Later, they may have contested for the same jobs as private club professionals. All of this, of course, is conjecture on my part.

The oddities of a life

CamelAdI continued to dig, which brought forth some surprises. Browsing the Internet one afternoon, I turned up a display advertisement for Camel cigarettes that ran in newspapers nationwide in May 1935. 

The ad featured testimonials from six athletes. “THEY (Camels) DON’T GET YOUR WIND!” the headline promised.  

In smaller type was this additional benefit: “You’ll like their mildness, too.” One of the athletes pictured was Rowland Dufton. He is holding a racket (inset -middle) in the ad and he does look slim and trim.

Summoning Google once more I learned that Rowland Dufton on Aug. 19, 1943, was the tennis professional at the Pelham Country Club, in Pelham, N.Y., not far from New York City. On that same page of the Pelham Sun, an article listed the results of games for kids in a summer program held at the Pelham Playground. A youngster named Nicholas Bollettieri, the article reported, had finished runner-up in horseshoes and ping-pong and had bested all in Chinese checkers.

Yes, that’s the same Nick Bollettieri who later coached Agassi, Sharapova, Seles and Courier, among many others. It’s the same Nick Bollettieri who thought tennis was a “sissy” sport when he was growing up in Pelham, N.Y. Though Bollettieri shared the same page in a long-ago newspaper with Rowland Dufton, I have no information that the two men ever crossed paths.

Another article, this one from the Yonkers N.Y. Herald Statesman on March 30, 1963, told of a “Rowland Dufton Night” at the Ardsley Country Club, located at Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York.  At age 67, Dufton was retiring after 10 years with the club, where he had worked as both a tennis and squash pro. During that time he was an active member of the USPTA and the USLTA.   

I was ready to dismiss Rowland Dufton as a self-centered stuffed shirt who catered only to the well-off when I learned via my computer that Dufton had participated in World War I. In fact, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with the 5th  Division. Assigned to the Ambulance Corps, he saw action in France and was awarded the Victory medal and three Bronze Stars.

Eventually I located a photograph of Dufton from the Yonkers, N.Y., Herald Statesman on July 13, 1956.  The fuzzy image showed Dufton telling 10-year-old Ara Tepikian how to grip a tennis racket.  Looking on was another 10-year-old, Frances Sansalone.  The caption said the occasion was a series of free tennis lessons that were offered every Thursday at a public park in Yonkers.    

That photo told me that Dufton had volunteered his time to give back to a sport he had played all his life. Suddenly the guy seemed halfway likeable.

Dufton_racket_003I am now fairly certain that the three letters on the racket’s throat stood for Ardsley Country Club and I that members of that club coaxed a racket manufacturer to produce some tennis rackets with Dufton’s signature and “ACC” on them  Dufton more than likely received one of the rackets on his retirement. The Ardsley club did not respond to an e-mail seeking confirmation.  

I also reasonably certain that the additional Rowland Dufton rackets were placed in a sporting goods store in New York City, near where my father worked.

He had four children, a mortgage and bills to pay, so a no-name-brand racket, likely marked-down, probably caught his eye.

Dad has been gone for almost 50 years now, so I can’t ask him what he was thinking when he brought home that strange tennis racket.   

Such details no longer matter, for I know the answer. My father was thinking of me.


TobySmith_FHCOUNTERPUNCHER is an exclusive online series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter, three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner, and past Section Marketing Committee member. He also volunteers for USTA Northern New Mexico.

Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years. To reach Toby or if you have a story idea, feel free to contact him at tobysmith68@gmail.com or 505-681-0667.

View past Counterpuncher stories HERE